6 habits you can start right now to improve your gut health
From our weight and mood to sleep cycle and appetite – our gut health impacts it all
If you broke up with sugar and gave yourself a little gold star for good behaviour, you may not be happy with what we’re about to tell you. Because there’s no winning when it comes to sweets, it turns out sugar substitutes aren’t doing our bodies any favours either. A recent study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences demonstrated that widely-used artificial sweeteners are potentially turning two types of gut bacteria harmful to the intestinal walls. Given 2022 so far, this should come as no surprise.
“Our study is the first to show that some of the sweeteners most commonly found in food and drink—saccharin, sucralose and aspartame—can make ‘healthy’ gut bacteria become pathogenic (disease-causing),” said Dr Havovi Chichger, senior author of the study and all-round bearer of bad news. In a concentration equivalent to two cans of diet soda, artificial sweeteners caused two harmful types of gut bacteria, E coli and E faecalis, to attach themselves to and damage the epithelial cells that line the intestinal walls. E faecalis, could, in fact, cross through the walls and enter our bloodstream, where it can potentially wreak havoc in the form of infections, sepsis and organ failure.
The diets of today – low in fibre, processed and packaged, and high in sugar (or artificial sweeteners, in this case) – have taken a toll on our gut health. Many of us do not even realise what’s going on inside our bodies.
Poor gut health can present itself in different ways. Sometimes it’s an obvious upset stomach, while in other cases, the signs and symptoms aren’t what you’d expect, such as feeling depressed and anxious.
“It’s important to watch what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat. Equally important is the pace at which we eat. Eat slowly, mindfully, in a relaxed environment and you’d be doing your gut a favour,” says sports nutritionist and celebrity fitness trainer Namrata Purohit.
“Studies have shown links between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, and various diseases and health issues. The gut and gut health is being constantly researched and is far more complex than we can imagine. It has a huge impact on our overall wellbeing and health,” she adds.
But what exactly are we talking about when we say gut health? Do you really need to choke down half a cup of apple cider vinegar every day? And why does ‘leaky gut’ sound less like an ailment and more like a pub you’d find in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley? We posed these questions and more to the experts to better understand our gut and how to take care of it.
What is the gut?
That gut feeling pulls at your stomach, but your gut actually begins at the mouth and goes all the way to your rectum. It’s the entire digestive system, explains Dr Rohini Somnath Patil, author, nutritionist, founder and CEO of Nutracy Lifestyle.
Gut health, she says, focuses on intestinal health, as well as oral health. There exists an active bacterial environment in our gut. Most of them are good, healthy bacteria that we need to have healthy bowel movements, digest food, and facilitate the absorption of nutrients.
Your gut has billions and billions of micro-organisms and the main process of digestion is carried out by them. Your entire digestive system needs to be functioning well in order to have good gut health.
Why is a healthy gut important?
Our gut is connected to everything, hailed by experts as our second brain. Patil has studied the gut anatomically and physiologically. “If you’re eating mostly junk like sugary foods and processed food, then there will be an increase in bad bacteria which can lead to a leaky gut and inflammation. There can be a lot of toxin formation and these then percolate into your blood,” she explains.
When we eat, our food gets broken down; waste is thrown out of the body, while the parts that are needed are digested, and then absorbed into the bloodstream. This is carried to all our other vital organs, like the brain, liver, skin, and heart. Imagine everything you eat — the good, the bad, and the greasy — is being circulated throughout your body.
Gastroenterologist Shahbaaz Khidwai says that the brain and gut are directly connected, with the gut even controlling hormone production. There are specific cells in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, stomach and pancreas which produce and release these hormones which play a key role in regulating metabolic processes. These include the storage and burning of fat, insulin sensitivity, glucose intolerance and more. 80%-90% of serotonin (a hormone that regulates moods, and can impact sexual function, sleep, bone health and more) is produced in the gut. An unhealthy gut with an overflow of bad bacteria means low serotonin which affects our physical and mental health,” adds Khidwai.
Do you know the stomachaches Chidi get every time he’s stressed in The Good Place? The nervous butterflies you feel right before a major presentation at work and the inability to poop when you’re under pressure? That’s the gut-brain connection at play.
How do I know if I have poor gut health?
Other than tummy-related problems, like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, food sensitivities, acidity, build-up of gas, and irregular bowel movements, the first organ to show signs of poor gut health is our skin. “I’ve seen so many people who start breaking out with acne after eating gluten, sugar or anything really that they cannot digest properly,” notes Patil. Our diet may be heavy on dairy, with crowd-favourites like milk in our chai, buttery paneer makhani and chaas, but she says that Indians as a population are a lot more intolerant of dairy than we realise.
Intolerance can also occur later in life, she adds. It’s not necessarily something you’re born with so it’s worth tracking the correlation between consumption of certain foods, like maida, sugar, and dairy, and the impact it has on your skin or bowel movements.
Another major aspect of our life to take a hit is our sleep cycle. Other than the pain and discomfort caused in your gut area that makes it difficult to sleep, Khidwai says the disruption of the good bacteria means a disruption in the serotonin levels which our body needs to produce melatonin. Melatonin is known as the sleep hormone and it regulars our natural circadian rhythm. It’s produced in response to darkness, but when serotonin levels are low, its production and effect can be impacted even at night.
What you can do to improve your gut health
Pick up a hobby to de-stress
We hate to pick sides, but mama was right when she says you need to stress less. Patil and Khidwai both note that stress has a major impact on our bodily functions, including our gut. “The gut microbiome is very sensitive to stress and it immediately responds to stress. When you’re stressed, you’ll feel like bingeing on something or find yourself reaching out for comfort food which might not be what your body needs,” says Patil.
If only it were easy to remove all stress from our lives. We all have different levels of stress we can cope with in a healthy manner. Some stress can be motivators for us to work harder and excel, but in a lot of cases, it makes us burn out.
Different people find different ways to de-stress. Meditation can be calming, enabling you to practice mindfulness and relax. Others find it more helpful to deal with stress by picking up a hobby. “As adults, we undermine the importance of the hobbies we had as children. Some may have even been forced onto us but we never realised how much good they were actually doing us,” says Khidwai. While there isn’t as much time for hobbies in adulthood, they’re just as important for your wellbeing.
It could be a half-hour painting class you attend or a mandala tutorial that you follow at home. Playing cards with your friends, pottery, gardening, cooking, picking up that one book you always wanted to read but never did – all of these activities could have tangible physical benefits as well as being good for your mental health.
Leave the late nights to the owls
As we slumber, our body rests and organs recover. Our gut needs to be well-rested too to function properly the next day. “When we sleep, there are a lot of hormones released in the gut which help you in the recovery process. The days when you’re not sleeping well, it alters your eating habits too. You may feel a little more acidic too because your stomach acid hasn’t settled,” says Patil.
A lack of proper sleep decreases the level of leptin, the hormone that is responsible for our feelings of satiety. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone is increased. When these hormones are out of whack, we tend to overeat without being able to tell when we’re full. Which, in turn, impacts the gut flora even more, and the discomfort can lead to a poor night’s sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, says Khidwai.
We should try and get 6-8 hours of sleep daily, getting our final meal of the day by 7:30 PM. If you’re struggling to fall asleep you can turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary and also take the temporary aid of melatonin supplements (with overuse, they can affect your body’s natural ability to produce melatonin), use a white noise machine, or indulge in some relaxing aromatherapy.
Watch your poops
Healthy large intestines can pull out the vitamins, water and electrolytes from what we have eaten and then propel the faeces out the body, which is what produces the urge to empty your bowel, explains nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar in a recent post about gut health.
You may be used to assessing what’s coming out of your child’s bum by now, but it’s time to look at our own… creations in the toilet bowl. She explains that when we’re not excreting properly, it’s an obvious sign that there’s something going haywire in our daily diet, which in turn is impacting our gut health. Seeing your morning poop will tell you how well you are digesting the food you eat and your body’s ability to absorb those nutrients. If it’s not healthy, then it means you aren’t properly assimilating nutrients.
She details the seven types of stool according to the Bristol stool chart, created by gastroenterologists, which can help us assess our bowel health. They range from 1 to 7; 1 being little rabbit-like round droplets and 7 being absolute liquid just running through our body. The ideal spot to be is at 3 to 4. Once we know where we sit on this scale we can accordingly change our diet and lifestyle habits, such as getting good sleep and dietary choices, some of which she goes on to explain in her video.
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Balance your plate with fibre and polyphenols
Purohit stresses that a well-balanced diet isn’t about eating less “but rather about eating right and getting all the necessary nutrients.” When it comes to dietary changes, the experts recommend you cut down on sugar, fatty fast food, heavy spices, alcohol, and even dairy. Though, Patil says that dahi is a safer form of dairy to have because it has natural probiotics, which is perfectly fine as long as it’s homemade.
Fill your plates with fresh fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t need to be expensive or fancy to be effective; apples, bananas, carrots, dals, chickpeas, potatoes, oats and yams are all fibre-rich additions to your shopping basket.
“You can add polyphenols to your daily diet. They are great anti-oxidants and some research shows it has a very positive effect on gut health by feeding the good Bifidobacteria and potentially reducing inflammation,” adds Khidwai. There are many types of polyphenols that are found in beans, nuts like walnuts and almonds, spinach, red onions, black olives, haldi, olive oil, apples, and even dark chocolate and red wine.
Bacteria need a break too with fasting
Intermittent fasting involves limiting your meals to a certain period of time during the day, and fasting for the remaining few hours to give your digestive system enough time to process and break down the food you eat.
Intermittent fasting can deprive the bad bacteria of nutrients that it craves to grow. As it goes into decline during the fasting period, good flora can thrive and get back in the driver’s seat of your gut health. Khidwai and Patil are believers in the benefits of intermittent fasting for everyone, though other experts believe it may not work the same way for everyone (read more about it here).
Referring to it as one of the best lifestyle changes to make to improve gut health, Patil says weight loss is a secondary side effect many people experience. “It’s like a gut reset. See how you feel, then you can take it up to a 14 hours window, then 16, depending on how comfortable you are. “
Pay attention to your oral hygiene
One of the most overlooked aspects of gut health is probably the importance of oral hygiene. “The gut starts at the mouth, and we have a host of bacteria that lives there too,” says Khidwai. You may be brushing twice a day and flossing as well, but Khidwai advises a different approach if you have very poor gut health. “Floss your teeth before you brush. With the floss, make sure you’re not just going up and down or front to back pulling the floss straight between our fingers but instead curving it into a C shape around the tooth.” He also says to do a gentle dry brush and mouth rinse following every meal and snack, and not just in the morning and night.
Patil recommends oil pulling. Take a tablespoon full of coconut oil or sesame oil and swish it around in your mouth. Do this first thing in the morning, even before your breakfast, coffee, or a sip of water. Swirl the oil around in your mouth for 15-20 minutes. It can seem like a long time right from the get-go, so maybe try doing it for a few minutes at first.
Follow the oil pulling with your regular brushing practice.
“When we’re sleeping there’s a build-up of bad bacteria in the mouth. When you brush your teeth or drink water immediately after you wake up, there is a high likelihood that you ingest that bacteria and it travels to the stomach and the rest of the digestive system,” says Patil.
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Our approach to gut health needs to go beyond food choices and supplements and look at our other lifestyle choices as well. “We overlook proper sleep, exercise, oral hygiene and fasting when we talk about gut healing,” says Patil. It’s worth the effort when our maximum potential for overall wellness lies in our gut.
A note of caution: This story is for educational purposes and contains inputs from experts and personal experiences. Please consult your healthcare provider if you’re in crisis for a treatment plan that works for you.